MONTECASTILLO, Spain (VN) — Journalists searched out shade from the bleaching Spanish summer sun, waiting for Chris Horner to return from a training ride. They wanted a first-person reaction to the stunning news Friday that the defending Vuelta a España champion would not be starting due to low cortisol levels.
His Lampre-Merida teammates completed a two-hour training spin, showered, had lunch, and were deep into siesta; still no Horner. One sport director went to the local airport to pick up team manager Brett Copeland. Journalists checked their watches. A team PR man came out to say Horner still had 90 kilometers to ride. Another sport director left in a team car, came back, and when asked where Horner was, he shrugged his shoulders; he had gone for a haircut. At 5 p.m., just as a handful of exasperated reporters were packing up to head back to Jerez de la Frontera for the team presentation, Horner finally rolled up.
With the enormity of the news of his Vuelta scratch, Horner searched for solace in the only place he knows, the bike.
“I found out this morning, so I went out and rode my bike for six hours,” Horner said. “It’s the best thing to do. It clears the head. It’s where I feel most comfortable, either riding my bike or hanging out with my wife. For me, the best thing to do was to ride six hours. It’s a great day. The countryside is fantastic. … If you had spoken to me this morning, it would have been a bit ugly. When you’re out training six hours, you realize life is not that bad.”
Horner, 41, was trying to come to grips with what had just happened to him. He woke up Friday morning to discover that pre-Vuelta health controls taken Thursday revealed low levels of cortisol, triggered by his use of oral cortisone to treat a nagging chest infection dating back to the Tour de France. He had done nothing illegal, he had followed the rules, and it was certainly not a doping infraction, but he was out of the Vuelta.
Under UCI rules, Horner was in the clear to race. In fact, he had meticulously followed the protocol, receiving official approval for doctors to prescribe the cortisone with a Therapeutic Use Exemption (TUE). Lampre-Merida, however, follows the stricter protocol adopted by the cycling team’s organization MPCC (Movement Pour un Cyclisme Credible), an advocacy group among teams to promote a cleaner image for the scandal-tarnished peloton.
When Horner sat down with team doctors and staffers on Friday morning, they only had one choice. According to MPCC rules, Horner couldn’t start. They pulled Horner out of the Vuelta on the eve of his title defense.
It took a six-hour bike ride alone across the barren Andalusian landscape for Horner to try to get his head around what had just unfolded.
“We understand the rules; we respect the rules. This is unfortunate for me. The Vuelta was a big objective for me. I worked and trained to be here. I suffered through the Tour and Utah. I suffered with breathing at the Tour and Utah, so the only option left was with the medication,” Horner said, explaining how two rounds of antibiotics was unable to break his chest infection.
“After the Tour, with my doctor in Oregon, with agreement of the team doctors, we decided that oral cortisone was the only treatment left to clear up the sickness in my lungs,” he continued. “I didn’t want to come here with the same sickness I had at the Tour, and we took every legal medication we could … the problem was with the cortisol level going too low.”
Horner’s case raised several questions at the eve of the Vuelta. First, a glaring inconsistency between the existing UCI and World Anti-Doping Agency rules, and the even stricter guidelines adopted by the MPCC.
The second issue is how several teams have not joined MPCC, creating a gap inside the peloton. Major teams, including Sky, BMC Racing, Movistar, Omega Pharma-Quick Step, Tinkoff-Saxo, and Trek Factory Racing, are not part of the group. Had Horner been racing for one of the teams not part of the MPCC, he would be starting the Vuelta tomorrow.
Horner also openly admitted he knew he was taking a risk in falling below accepted limits with the cortisone treatment, but insisted that getting well was the priority, instead of starting the Vuelta sick yet again.
“Every ‘I’ and ‘T’ was crossed, with the UCI, with the team, every substance I took was legal, every substance I took was approved … I did know, and I was completely aware, that there could be a problem,” he said.
“It’s frustrating as a rider. I knew the risk with the medication, but it was the only way to be healthy,” he said. “Those are the rules. I don’t disagree with the rules. I knew the risk taking the oral cortisone. I had my fingers crossed, and that I wouldn’t have any problems, but with the health checks, it wasn’t possible.”
Horner said he would leave the Vuelta, spending a few days at his home in Denia along Spain’s Mediterranean coast, waiting for his wife’s arrival to Spain, before returning to the United States.
There is nothing stopping Horner from returning to competition once his cortisol levels return to normal, which could be a matter of days, and he hopes to race the Canadian World Tour races.
“This is one more blow on the chin. I am really disappointed [not] to be racing here against guys like Froome and Contador. I was really looking forward to that,” Horner said shaking his head.
“It’s been a long, trying season. The Tour was incredibly hard,” he continued. “I was hoping to be here at a 100 percent, but clearly I am not. There is nothing more I can do. I did everything right, with training, diet, commitment, but it’s just not meant to be. I have to move on.”
It might take a few more six-hour training rides to get over the latest setback.
Valerio Conti, a neo-pro taking Horner’s spot on Lampre’s roster, will ride with the No. 1 bib in his grand tour debut.